A recurring mantra in my posts - and the focus of the practice manual - is how marketing and business development meetings must be focused upon determining and discussing the client's needs. This should be self-evident, but in practice things often don't work out that way. Because it is so obvious, clients will literally tell me I don't need to even mention it. But I persist, because I have seen these meetings go sour too many times. They patiently listen, as I first explain the why, and then how this can be accomplished.
So, in the real world, how does it go once the actors are in their positions and the curtain opens? Act One usually begins OK; everyone more or less sticks to the playbook. That's a good thing. To win the engagement, the team should exercise self-discipline and make sure they stick to the plan. Frequently, however, they stray. To illustrate my point, I am going to reveal an actual example - with names changed for obvious reasons - of how bad it can get without a real meeting plan, an agreed upon team leader and a solid, shared commitment to follow the plan.
My client had an appointment to pitch the firm's services to a growing manufacturer of fiberglass lawn and garden furniture. Their revenue was approx. $6MM with better than average P & L, a good cash position and low debt. They were a highly desirable account to capture within my client's relatively small market. We were about 30 minutes into the meeting when Ed, the owner, mentioned in passing he probably needed to cut down the square footage dedicated to raw material storage because they were getting more into Just In Time purchasing. He brought this up as part of a larger discussion about cost containment and the impact of excessive production square footage was having upon margins. Ed then mentioned offhand he'd recently broached the subject to his management team and they'd agreed it was worth exploring a future move to a more optimal facility.
At this moment in the proceedings my team spontaneously decided to create their version of Alice In Wonderland: Tom, who focused his practice on corporate clients and had a special interest in tax-free exchanges, processed Ed's comments in his own special way. Sensing a potential real estate transaction and an opportunity to demonstrate his knowledge, he jumped in and began to expound upon the glories of tax-free exchanges. The tax advantages, what "like-kind" meant, the mechanics, the exclusions, examples of how it had worked with other clients (Big, Important Clients, mind you!). He waxed eloquently ad nauseum, dazzling us all with his grasp of a process that had no relevance to why the prospect was interviewing my client.
One and then two minutes passed without letup. I'm could feel myself dying; life forces inexorably being sucked into the black hole that Tom was creating. Time slowed down; each tick of the wall clock became a death knell for my team's chances of obtaining the engagement. Like a slowly unfolding horror movie the prospect's body language initially evidenced confusion, then boredom and finally started to morph into impatience. I knew from experience that exasperation, or even anger, was just around the corner.
The Managing Partner was too far away to kick. I couldn't even get his eye. The entire team was oblivious to the opportunity spiraling away as Tom basked in his moment in the sun, trumpeting his reputation as The Man for tax-free exchanges in the entire area. I could practically hear their thoughts: "Let's see those slackers over at Dinkum, Doofus and Sloth top this!"
To ensure destruction was complete and no wrong path untraveled, some of Tom's partners-in-crime needed their share of the glory, so they chimed in with their own irrelevant comments ("As you can see Ed, Tom's knowledge is extensive and is representative of the skill and experience we bring to the table. Why, back in 1999 I remember the time Tom ... blah, blah, blah, and the tax court agreed with him ... blah, blah, blah.").
By this time Ed was sending out vibes like a treed cougar surrounded by a pack of baying hounds. He finally pushed his chair back, looked at his watch and said he had to get to another meeting.
None of my team had a clue about what had just transpired. As we walked out of the building, the consensus was that it was unfortunate we didn't have time to cover all the issues, but hey, we showed them our stuff. It went well, they crowed. I'm sure we'll get the engagement. Let's celebrate! We kicked butt. If they don't choose us, they probably don't deserve us. Laughter, smiles and high fives.
We piled into Dan's SUV. Heading out of the parking lot, I asked Terry, the firm's managing partner - who was a pilot - if he'd ever fallen out of the sky from three miles up, one wing gone, engines on fire and no parachute. "Of course not," he replied. "Well, you have now," I said.
Predictably, another firm got the engagement.
My recent excerpts have touched upon this subject from a number of different directions. It is always about the prospective client; their priorities, concerns, fears, desires, needs and wants. You typically only have an hour or so to do this better than your competition. Then your job becomes straightforward: you wrap up the meeting by proposing only the necessary solution(s) and asking for the business. That's it in a nutshell. No more. No less. Later, once you have a history with the client and the relationship has deepened, opportunities will appear to challenge your creativity - and maybe even give rise to the suitability of a tax-free exchange.